After a decade of conflict, Libya has made welcome progress toward stability. A cease-fire inked in October 2020 paved the way for the establishment of an interim unity government tasked with preparing for national elections at the end of 2021. While these developments are cause for hope, numerous issues remain that could threaten long-team peace — including many people’s undetermined legal status. An estimated several hundred thousand people in Libya — even some born and raised in the country — lack proof of citizenship. Marginalized groups, such as those with disabilities, are among those most impacted by citizenship struggles. In this war-torn country, this is but another issue that exacerbates conflict and tension.
This problem, which is particularly widespread in Libya’s unstable and marginalized Fezzan region, is rooted in citizenship laws from Libya’s independence in 1951 and was exacerbated by Muammar al-Qaddafi’s “manipulative and inconsistent” citizenship policies during his rule.
Undetermined legal status severely limits Libyans’ educational and employment opportunities and can drive some to join militias or work as smugglers or traffickers. More broadly, the citizenship issue contributes to instability and stymies peace efforts by fueling resentment within communities and broadening divisions between tribal groups: certain tribes, such as Tuareg, have a larger number of people with undetermined legal status. For long-term peace to succeed, it will be important to support people with undetermined legal status and ensure that they have positive economic alternatives.
Struggles of Those Lacking Citizenship
Sidi Mohamed, from the Fezzan city of Ubari with undetermined legal status and a disability, says that his lack of papers has prevented him from completing his education and affected his employment opportunities. As director of the Hand Association for the Handicapped, Mohamed explained that he faces difficulties in obtaining benefits from the local office of the Social Solidarity Fund (SSF), which is a governmental body that provides assistance to persons with disabilities (PWDs) and other disadvantaged groups.
Mohamed is not alone in his struggles. The Ubari branch of the SSF has reportedly refused to file benefits for those with undetermined legal status as well, acting cautiously and citing legal confusion. Since the 2011 uprising, successive governments have issued various ministerial decisions regarding the rights and protections afforded to people with undetermined legal status. Some of these decisions gave people with undetermined legal status similar rights to Libyan citizens, and others did not. This lack of administrative clarity on the national level has allowed for officials to make decisions arbitrarily, and in ways that usually do not favor PWDs.
Challenges with the SSF have also extended beyond its administrative problems in work with individuals. Mabrouka Bandih, a teacher and mother who launched the Malak al-Janoub Center for People with Disabilities two years ago, explained that she experienced pushback from the SSF when she attempted to register her center officially. Despite Bandih’s own background in education, as well as the seasoned specialists that she worked with, officials at the SSF were reluctant to endorse the center’s work by providing it with official registration, saying that it was not qualified to undertake its mission.
Bandih persisted in attempting to obtain registration. She knew that local resources such as the Malak al-Janoub Center are of particular importance to PWDs with undetermined legal status, because these people are unable to obtain the official identity documents they need in order to seek treatment abroad. “I always think about those [with undetermined legal status],” said Bandih. “And I am suffering from their plight, as they are prohibited from traveling even for the purpose of [medical] treatment.”
Fixing an Unsustainable System
Working with the local Azjar Association, USIP designed and convened a dialogue in November 2020 that aimed to bring people together to address the needs of PWDs in Ubari. This dialogue, as part of the Institute’s “Community-Based Dialogues for Reconciliation” project — which promotes reconciliation, social cohesion and sustainable peace — focused on PWDs as a way to bring together all three of Ubari’s tribal groups to solve a collective issue. Moreover, the dialogue served as a jumping-off point for dealing with sensitive transitional justice issues — as some PWDs were injured in Ubari’s 2014-2016 tribal war, leaving residual tensions in the city. But as the dialogue sessions progressed, an additional problem became increasingly clear: the challenges that PWDs with undetermined legal status face.
Participants included PWDs, parents of children with disabilities and people and institutions that work to help PWDs — including the SSF, the PWD unit under the local education office and members of the municipal council. During the dialogue, USIP-trained facilitators helped lead sessions that resulted in change, as the SSF director reversed his position and agreed to process the files of PWDs. The SSF also expressed interest in working more closely with Bandih, asking her to provide them with the registration papers to start the accreditation procedures for the Malak al-Janoub Center. Following the dialogue, the local municipality also met with Bandih and offered to provide her organization with an office location.
Bandhi credited the dialogue with the Fund’s changed approach. “The dialogue sessions were very effective and useful … because of the push from the dialogue sessions, the Fund felt that it must develop a solution for people with disabilities who have undetermined legal status.”
This illustrates how listening to the concerns of marginalized groups can be a good entry point to identify initiatives to contribute to transitional justice and peace. It demonstrates how civil society advocacy and working with local governmental institutions can help disadvantaged groups attain their rights and move incrementally toward a more equitable society — even in a context where change is hard to achieve on the national level.
Despite these promising steps, there is much more that can be done. Finding a solution so that people with undetermined legal status can access basic services available to Libyan citizens can help alleviate long-standing tensions between different tribal groups and encourage social cohesion. This will also improve the economic situation of people with undetermined legal status, making it less likely that they will resort to illegal activities — such as smuggling — that can also drive conflict.
It is clear that the outcome of the ongoing national-level peace process is critical to Libya’s future. But smaller-scale initiatives — ones that seek to build peace from the ground up and resolve grievances of marginalized communities — are crucial to ensuring that peace in Libya, once achieved, will be sustainable.
Abigail Corey is a program specialist for the Libya program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Ali Ansari is a project officer for the Libya program at the Institute.